Succot, Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah (Transcribed Lecture)
One of the first ideas to understand is the number seven. One of the most familiar associations with the number seven is the seven days of the week, representing the completion of the physical world, and therefore spirituality. This is because the physical world can only exist with the completion of the spiritual world. We find that in the first six days of creation, the link between the physical world and the spiritual worlds is the creation of the human being. Thereafter, we enter into Shabbat, which is Me’en Olam Habah, a taste of the world to come, an entirely spiritual existance. But it is a spiritual existance of a physical world that has been perfected.
It doesn’t only work with the days of the week. It also works with physical space. If you take the major directions, North, South, East, West, as well as top and bottom, you have six directions, or dimensions. (Obviously when talking about the earth, there’s no top or bottom; everyone knows that North America is on top, and South America is on the bottom!) If you think about it, you’ll realize that the “right” is always relative to a specific point. I remember telling my father as a kid that it doesn’t matter if you face east or west when you daven – either way you’re still facing Jerusalem, because the earth is round! At first he said that that’s the point you delineate east from west. So I gave him some trouble with that…
The same goes for front or back. In order for something to be called the front, it has to be in front of something else. However, there is one point in space that does not need to be specified as relative to another point. That is the middle. If is not so much the center, but some point that is not to the right or to the left, east or west, top or bottom. The number seven represents that point. If I understand that the six directions are by definition physical, then the only spiritual number is the number seven.
That is why Shabbat is the seventh day. It is not based on any specific point in the physical world. That is why you can look at Shabbat as the end of the week, sanctifying that which preceded it, or as the beginning of the week, sanctifying that which follows it, or, as the middle of the week. Therefore, you’re allowed to make Havdalah anytime until Tuesday night because we look at Shabbat as being in the center. This is also why if you were lost in the desert and have also lost track of time – you don’t know if it is Monday or Friday – you would count seven days, and the seventh day counted would be Shabbat. According to others, you would begin with Shabbat, for the same reason, because if you begin with Shabbat you’re dealing with a specific time.
That middle number, the number seven, is called the Heichal Hakodesh, or the Holy Sanctuary. Heichal is another word for the Beit Hamikdash. What’s so interesting is that the number seven, as we have said, is not defined by physical space and yet we call it Heichal, the sanctuary, or the room. Why would we possibly give it a space? One of the ways to understand it is by thinking of some of the things that happen on Succot. For example, we take a lulav and etrog and stand with them in one spot, and whether you’re Ashkenaz or Sefarad, we point with the lulav in each of the six directions. What’s in the middle? What is the point from which you are pointing? The person! At that point, the person is placing him or herself within the Heichal Hakodesh – placing him or herself in a space that is beyond time. It is a way of saying that when I acknowledge God’s mastery over the entire world, only then can I begin to exist in this spiritual plane.
Not only that, I can step into this spiritual plane when I understand what it is to be inside a room, inside something else. We are under this misconception that when we’re inside a house, we are inside. Actually, we are not really protected. Just look at the recent earthquake in Turkey or the Hurricane that roared through North Carolina. You can be as inside as you want, but your not really protected if “Mother Nature” has her way. You can be as sophisticated as you want, but the truth is, you’re not in charge. That’s one of the reasons we go into a Succah. The only time we are really inside of something is, ironically, when we are outside.
That’s why halachically speaking, the physical construction of the succah sometimes doesn’t matter. For example, you have numerous “imaginary” Halachot concerning a succah. You all probably see that there is open space between the canvas and the roof, the sechach. You all see it? Now that is an optical illusion. It isn’t really there. Because there is a Halacha called levud, meaning “it stretches.” That means that the space is halachically closed. The reason being is that the walls have to be closed. One of the laws passed on from Moshe is that he received as an oral tradition from Sinai that if the open space is less than three fists tefachim, it is considered closed! Over there is a wall of the house and we want to count it as part of the succah. But notice that the wall doesn’t touch it. It’s an optical illusion. That wall is actually all the way against the roof – you just don’t see it. It’s all there in Halacha.
Could you build a succah under an awning? No, because the roof has to be of kosher sechach, and an awning is not kosher. But I have this problem. I need one the wall of my house to be one of the walls of my succah. But if I build the succah against my house, it will be under the awning and part of my succah won’t be kosher. So what do I do? It’s not a problem. It’s all an optical illusion. Because the truth is, if there are five feet between the wall of my house and the end of the sechach, it’s not a problem. Of course the wall touches. Don’t you know “____________?” The wall is bent. So it is not that there is a wall over there. That’s the wall leaning into the succah. And you people think you know how to see. Let’s say this wall over here hung from the top, but didn’t make it all the way down to the ground. It doesn’t make a difference. “____________,” it goes all the way down – you just don’t see it.
So you have halachot that you have to build wall in such-and-such a way, but you also have all these other laws passed down to Moses, and from Moses to us, that you don’t have to build a succah the way it’s supposed to be. And that, by the way, has a lot to do with the need for imagination immediately following Yom Kippur. Because on Yom Kippur you experience yourself one way, but when you deal with yourself on a practical level, you find that it is nearly impossible to connect with what you felt then to the way you live your daily life. Therefore, some imagination is necessary. With imagination, it is possible to live life on an intensely spiritual level the rest of the year. Imagine that wall is bent, or that the wall touches the roof. “____________” is so interesting. We are told we have to have three walls, but then we’re given all these laws that don’t really require us to build three complete walls because we are not looking to the walls to be real walls.
What, after all, are we remembering when we sit in a succah? We remember that when we were in the desert, clouds surrounded us. And those clouds are what protected us. How many clouds were there? Seven – right, left, front, rear, top, bottom, and one cloud in the front that led the way. Imagine that experience – traveling along in the desert on this moving sidewalk! (When I was a kid flying on a plane, I always wanted to climb out – they do it in cartoons all the time – and rest on one of those puffy clouds. They looked so comfortable. My father assured me that it didn’t work that way.) The experience must have been like being totally enveloped by God.
When we sit in the succah, we become the Heichal Hakodesh. If we imagine that we are not looking at walls, but looking at clouds; that we are not looking at a floor of concrete, but looking at clouds; and not looking at a roof of bamboo, but looking at clouds, then we are standing in the Heichal Hakodesh. The one who can turn a succah into a Heichal Hakodesh, is someone who can connect to the number seven. That person is someone who knows, or understands, or has the capacity to realize and experience what was happening inside those clouds and what is happening inside a succah. That’s where we have to put our effort into when we sit in a succah.
The idea at the beginning of Succot is to know how to exist in the Heichal Hakodesh. That is we need to know how to exist beyond the boundaries of physical existance, and to live in a world of spiritual existance. It may not seem practical at times. Indeed, it is so hard. The truth is that there are times when we absolutely have to remember that that which we think is reality, is not. It is just not real. For example, if we deal with what we were discussing last week, God makes a conscious decision literally every second of our existance to continue to give us existance. That means that the One who gives us existance is giving us that existance at that second. If God would cease to will for us to exist, we would not exist. You never know whether you’re going to continue to exist in the next second. And yet, we have to obviously deal with our world as a reality. If we didn’t, we would have to shake a physical lulav and etrog.
One of the ideas of mitzvot is that despite that fact that this is not a world of reality, God tells us that He will give us the means to make it a reality. For example, this cow doesn’t really exist, yet you have to ritually slaughter it. That is what gives that cow its real existance. That’s why sacrifices are so important. The mitzvot are there to help us deal with the physical world and make it a reality. However, there are times when it’s absolutely necessary to remember what is truly reality and what isn’t. Therefore, the things that bother us day-to-day should make us stop and ask what difference does it make? There are so many things that happen and we get so caught up in our existance. We really lose sight of what is reality.
My sister once took a test during her ninth month of pregnancy. My grandmother had just died and she and her husband and her six children had moved in with my grandfather to take care of him. It was right before Pesach. She had just completed her written thesis and was ready to receive her diploma two months later. The problem was that she was missing a course in statistics. They didn’t realize this until two weeks before Pesach. So she had to get the house ready and study statistics. And being a Weinberg, she had difficulty with that. Can you imagine the situation? She worked as hard as she could. She prepared herself for the test, took the test, and was convinced that she didn’t do well. She’d have to wait for the diploma, and push off her licensing six months. She came home and was depressed.
My father asked her why she was so upset. She told him that she didn’t think she did well. He said, “So? What is getting upset going to do for you? What will you accomplish? It’s not going to change it. Either you did well, or you didn’t. If you did well – there’s nothing to worry about, and if you didn’t – your worrying is not going to help you. So what are you worrying about?” I remember before my bar mitzvah…He said, “Are you nervous?” I said yes. “What for, it is going to make you speak any better? Either you speak well, or you don’t. Being nervous won’t make it any better; it probably will make it worse. So don’t be nervous. I asked him, “Were you nervous before your bar mitzvah? He acknowledged that he did, but said, “ right before my bar mitzvah, but later I realized that it wouldn’t accomplish anything. I’ve never been nervous since.” It’s so obvious, and it makes perfect sense. And yet we laugh. If someone would say that when we were upset, we’d want to murder him. He has no sense of reality! I remember when I was writing his eulogy, I wondered who really had a sense of reality?
Part of the idea of when we shake the lulav, is how to step into the Heichal Hakodesh. Similarly, part of the idea of when we go out into the succah is to learn how to step into the Heichal Hakodesh. It is different from Shabbat. Because on Shabbat, the Heichal Hakodesh exists in time, whereas on Succot we have the opportunity to make it exist in space. On Succot, we learn to step into a Heichal Hakodesh, and step into an entirely different level of existance. From this, we can gain perspective of what is real and what is not.
It is different and goes beyond Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, we deal with very physical things. One, we pray for physical things; and two, when we list our sins we are dealing with things that exist on the physical level. Teshuva does not exist on a physical level. “I ate something I shouldn’t have eaten,” or “I didn’t wash my hands,” or, “I worshipped idols.” These things happen on a physical level. You need to step beyond to understand how Teshuva really functions. If our existance is not a true reality, then we can understand – we can just undo it. That’s why Succot follows Yom Kippur. If we can learn how to step into the Heichal Hakodesh, this spiritual sanctuary, then we can understand how Teshuva functions. There is this sinking feeling on Yom Kippur – “How can I possibly undo what I have done?” The time when our Teshuva becomes functional is on Succot. Which is why the judgement is not delivered until Hoshanah Rabbah. It can still be changed. If we can step into this spiritual sanctuary on Succot we can do Teshuva on a much higher level.
Nora Shaykin: I’m having difficulty understanding this concept of Teshuva and “reality” with respect to having wronged another person. It would be an easy out to say it really didn’t happen.
RSW: My Teshuva doesn’t begin to work until I’ve asked for that other person’s forgiveness. The Teshuva has to be functional. The exception is fathering an illegitimate child, that is a man who sleeps with a married woman and produces a child. That child is called a mamzer. This cannot be undone. This is referred to in Ecclesiastes as “a sin that cannot be undone.” This is not because of the physical reality. The child, after all, will eventually die. It’s spiritual. Even murder you can undo. Obviously not the pain caused to the families. Cain committed murder, and he was the first to do Teshuva.
Debbie Weinberg: What if the person doesn’t forgive you?
RSW: It depends on what the sin is. You have to ask the person one time alone. The second time, in front of two people at a different time and place and under conducive conditions. The third time in front of three people at a different time and place and under conducive conditions. If after the third time, he hasn’t forgiven you, after you had been truly begging for forgiveness, then you’re forgiven. The only thing you don’t have to forgive, and should not forgive, is if someone says something about you that’s not true.
As we discussed earlier, Hoshanah Rabbah is when the angels are sent out to deliver our verdicts. That’s why in Kabbalah they say that the waiting period between Yom Kippur and Hoshanah Rabbah is called Pisgah Tava, meaning whatever they drop in your mailbox should be good. We are supposed to look for good mail. But there’s more, in terms of space that we do on Succot. That takes us from Succot and into Simchat Torah. What do we do in terms of space? We make Hakafot, circuits or circles – seven circles, to be exact, on Hoshanah Rabbah. But, generally, over the course of Succot, we make circles. The circles are considered as if we are creating a space. During Succot and Hoshanah Rabbah, we circle around the Torah. In doing so, we create walls of protection around the Torah like a bride makes around her groom to build walls of privacy and connection.
During the time of the Beit Hamikdash, they would take these enormous willow branches and lean them up against the sides of the altar until you had a roof of aravot covering the altar. In other words, you couldn’t see the altar because of this roof. Incidentally, one of the seven “skies” is referred to arava. Arava is the place where the righteous live. Do you remember when it says at the beginning of the Torah where “the spirit of God hovered over…?” Rashi writes on this verse that God’s spirit hovered over the water the way a mother bird hovers over her nest. The aravot on top of the altar were a nest. If done properly, it is a nest constructed on Succot, a holiday during which we are judged for water, which by the way, is the only time we ever pour water on the altar.
In this way, the altar becomes a place for water, and we build a nest over the water, much like God’s spirit hovered over the water. This is the exercise we practice throughout Succot, but especially at its climax. During Succot itself we stand inside the Heichal Hakodesh, surrounded by God, protected by God, and hugged by God (the simplest circle). Now, on Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, we move to create our own Heichal Hakodesh. We are to create our own spiritual space and so holy that God’s presence will hover over it, as God did on the first day of Creation. We see this idea played out in another instance where a bird is hovering over water. Remember the raven sent out by Noah? The word for raven is orev, which in turn is related to arava. The ark represents another point in creation: when the world is coming back.
How did we draw the six directions when we wanted to step into the Heichal Hakodesh? We drew it with a lulav. To draw the circle, we also used a lulav. And how did we walk around? — With a lulav. In other words, the same ‘pen’ we used to mark out the Heichal Hakodesh we now use to make our own space. This occurs during the first six days. However, on the seventh day, we show that it is successful.
Cheryl Sandler: Women don’t really do that though. They just sit there and watch.
RSW: The truth is that women don’t need it. “The wisdom of women builds the house.” For women, as far as Halacha is concerned, it is their responsibility to turn their home into a Heichal Hakodesh. So it is an exercise that women practice every day of the year. That’s why it says that all the dignity of the princess, the daughter of the king, is inside. Because we lived in a society where the men were the ones who went outside, and the women stayed home. The men would come in from the outside world, and the women’s responsibility was to take that which came from outside and sanctify it. That’s why a woman wears a veil under the chuppah. Where do you have a curtain in the Beit Hamikdash? — Between the Holy and the Holy of Holies. When the man says, “Behold you are sanctified to me…” the woman is considered to respond no, not just sanctified, but Kodesh Kedoshim. Shlomo (Carlebach) taught me that. (We used to bump into one another on the street and play ‘Dvar Torah Pinball.’)
This is something that goes well from a Halachic perspective, but we don’t live with that reality on a practical level. It doesn’t function that way anymore. Women do not stay at home. They go out and work and the demands are twice of what they used to be before. It is still important to be aware of the Halacha, and what we strive for. This isn’t the way it has to be or should be. It’s not. That’s why saying ‘well, it’s different now – OK, lets make changes,’ is not a good attitude. You have to be sure when you make changes that it won’t limit your vision. If you say, ‘let’s make a change but keep our eyes on the ball,’ that’s different. Changes that are made to adjust it without keeping the ideal in sight changes the whole Gestalt of the Jewish People because they are no longer looking to what things ought to be. Rather, they are looking at what is.
That was the whole argument of the Reform Movement. That’s why they call their synagogues Temples. It’s another way of saying that there won’t be a Temple in Jerusalem – the temple has to be here. The first temple was opened on Tisha B’Av in Germany. A man got up an explained why it was to be called a Temple. He said that Berlin is now our Jerusalem, and this is now our Temple; there is no need any longer to mourn. Exactly 50 years later, on Kristallnact, that was the first synagogue to be burnt down. More interesting is that Samson Raphael Hirsh wrote about this proclamation saying that if the Jews see this as their Jerusalem, they will be destroyed just as the Jews of old were.
DW: How can you change things while keeping things the way they should be?
RSW: That’s what the sukkah is for. Obviously you have to keep your eye on the ball. The other way too, and deal with reality the way it is. But to simply say, “OK, I give in,’ that’s not the right way. To live only with the idealistic notion of the way it ought to be is also not practical because we have to live in this world. That’s why some forms of Modern Orthodoxy, in which we have to adjust to the world we live in, are dangerous. There have to some direction to the changes we make, that are necessary, but not limiting.
Nora Shaykin: Isn’t it more than that? We’re not looking back or forward to that idea as an ideal anymore, we’re not even adjusting to reality. We don’t even want to get back.
RSW: That’s what I’m saying. You also have to deal with reality, as we know it. That’s why for me the most important thing in the women’s issue is learning. That makes a difference. Women have to learn. Which of course, the Chafetz Chaim instituted in Europe with the formation of Beit Yaacov.
On Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, we take it to an entirely new level. On Hoshanah Rabbah we use the Lulav to draw out the Heichal Hakodesh. On Shemini Atzeret and on Simchat Torah, however, we no longer use the lulav, we use the Torah. In other words, the way we will learn how to live in a Heichal Hakodesh is through Torah, a Torah that is loved, not just studied alone. A passionate love, a love that is so powerful that you can squeeze it and dance with it, because you are so happy to be holding it. If that’s not the reality of learning Torah, that Torah will not help us created a Heichal Hakodesh and will not help us learn how to live in a Heichal Hakodesh. To have a book that is a problem to learn, and is boring: “it’s difficult and the words are so hard,” or “I’ll go to a class once a week,” but it’s not passionate, not wild, crazy to learn with joy, then it doesn’t work.
How do we point to the Torah during Hagbah? – With our pinkie. Why do we use our pinkie? When do ever find the pinkie being focused on in Halacha? “A man should not even look at the pinkie of woman if he can’t be married to her.” What does that tell you? A pinkie is a sign of lust. How do we point to the Torah? – With Lust. It sounds funny, but there’s nothing sexier. There’s nothing more exciting. There’s nothing more sensuous. There’s nothing more lovable and attractive than the Torah. If that has not been our experience with Torah, then it’s not the Torah, but with those teaching the Torah.
That’s the way our relationship with Torah has to be. Imagine when you dance with the Torah. You hug it and squeeze it, literally. That’s what you have to experience! By the way, That’s why we say that a woman who is experiencing her period should not dance with the Torah – when you hold a Torah on Simchat Torah, you are making love to it.
One of the greatest things that Shlomo (Carlebach) did, even greater than his music in my opinion, was that on Simchat Torah he would take all the sefarim off the shelves of the Shul. He would then present a sefer to each person on the proviso that he or she would make a commitment to learn from that sefer. Since there were not enough Sifre Torah to go around, he would hand out sefarim.
That’s really what the experience has to be, so that we create that Heichal Hakodesh of enveloping the altar. A place where we brought God’s presence so that it hovered over it, literally a sky, an arava, with a nest, and a bird hovering over it. The way we created that, and enveloped it, and protected it, so too, we envelope and protect the Torah, a Torah that is studied with love and passion. The most practical thing to do on Simchat Torah is not just to dance, but to dance with a book we are going to learn.
There’s more. There are six mitzvot that are called Temidiot. These mitzvot are not like making a bracha before you eat, sitting in a succah, or putting on Tefillin. They are not like keeping Shabbat. Every other mitzva is a response to a stimulus. These are constant mitzvot, which are obligatory every second of the day. They are: (1) To know there exist a being who always existed, exists, and always will exist. (2) Not to think there is any other power other than God, including you. (3) To know that God is a unity; (4) To love God, passionately. (5) To be in awe of God, (as opposed to fear). (6) Not to follow your eyes or your heart when they tell you to something wrong. What is the stimulus for these six mitzvot? – Our relationship with God, which is why they are constant. The way my father explained the definition of these six mitzvot is that they are mitzvot not of performance, but of being. These mitzvot are also known as the mitzvot of envelopment, because they are with at every moment. The only way to create love that is a state of being is with Torah. There is no other way. There is no other way to love God without the study of Torah.
So, there are several things to keep in mind over the next few days — The idea of Heichal Hakodesh; what is reality and what is not; understanding that if I can live on this spiritual plane, then it is so much easier to understand and conceptualize how Teshuva can work. Even if it hasn’t been the perfect time since Yom Kippur, we still have time so do Teshuva now. “I understand that those moments in which I sinned don’t exist and are not my reality. I don’t want it to be my reality. All those mistakes I made – they aren’t a part of my reality. I reject them and I don’t want them. I want You. I want to be in touch. I don’t want to lose perspective. They are not part of me. You are – God, who gives me existance every second.” By the time Erev Shemini Atzeret night comes, we’re ready for the angels to come and deliver our judgement and for our sentence to be rewritten. That’s why many people stay up all night Hoshanah Rabbah learning. In fact, it is more important to stay up all night on Hoshanah Rabbah than on Shavuot night – because this is it, when your life is on the line.
There’s more we can do. Using the experience of succah and lulav and etrog we create that special place over the altar. That’s why we say at the end of Hallel “_____________” — they would cover the altar with aravot. So when you’re walking around with the lulav and etrog in Hakafot, just picture the scene with all those aravot planted like a nest over the altar. At least say that you want to create your own Heichal Hakodesh, not just the ones you give me. I want to create them on my own. That’s the way to complete the physical world – by using a physical lulav walking around a physical bimah to create a Heichal Hakodesh. Then, to preserve it, it can only be done with the study of the Torah, performed with passionate love. At the very least, commit to studying more Torah. For example, mourners are not allowed to dance with the Torah, to walk around the altar, for Hoshanot because it is something that can only be done with joy, and a mourner has been stricken with divine justice.
Ted Cohen: So what do you do?
RSW: You stand on the sidelines. It intensifies the mourning experience.
Even if it is not a lot, you should make a commitment to learn more this year. Then to understand that the way to envelope the Heichal Hakodesh around myself, like the way the clouds of glory surrounded us in the desert, is done through the six constant mitzvot of being. And that these in turn can only be accomplished through the learning of Torah with passionate love.
There is one last thing. How do we know that the sechach needs to be made of something that grew from the ground? The succah reminds us of the clouds that surrounded and protected us in the desert. The first time you have a cloud in the Bible is (Genesis 2:2) where is says that G-d planted a garden and a “cloud rose from the ground and watered the garden.” Obviously, then, sechach has to grow from the ground. Halacha takes it literally. What happened to this cloud? What did G-d use this cloud for? – To water the Garden of Eden. This is what made the Garden of Eden grow. Even more interesting, is that the succah is a form of exile. You’ve been exiled from your house. When was the first exile? – From the Garden of Eden. Here on Succot, there is literally a chance to go back, to go back to the Tree of Life. And what is the Tree of Life? – Torah! So the cloud of Succot leads to Simchat Torah where you hold the Tree of Life, the Torah, in your hands. Standing in the cloud, the Succah, you’re not just standing in the Heichal Hakodesh, you’re standing in Gan Eden! But the way, what does Gan Eden mean? – A garden in time. It exists in a different dimension of time. (Also, a garden of pleasure.)
Daniel Goldman: When we shake the lulav in Hallel we point the lulav in each direction except one – when we come to God’s name. We stand at attention, as it were. How does that fit into the theme of Heichal Hakodesh?
RSW: Because you’re not moving. God is not limited in space. So God is in the middle of the circle with you.
DW: What are we doing when we beat the aravot?
RSW: You know –What are you smashing? We are smashing the Yetzer Hara – Our physical limitations. This is a whole different concept. Whenever we speak of Mashiach, we speak about the news of messiah, “_______,” may Elijah come and tell us good news. It’s so interesting how you now have news 24 hours a day. 1010 news. 880 news. CNN. Coming out of your ears news. As if they are ready for Mashiach. I think that’s the only reason why G-d would impose this kind of punishment on us! The reason is that Elijah is coming to give us the news and that signifies expectations. The thrill of Elijah is coming. The key phrase that we say in Hoshanot is “______.” We don’t ask for the news that will come or the joy that we would experience. We ask for the moment of knowing it’s going to happen – Which in many ways is better than the moment of coming. Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah represent that the time has arrived. When we smash the aravot, we say “_______.” The news comes on Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
DW: If we were successful in building the nest with the aravot, why do need to hit them?
RSW: If we create the Heichal Hakodesh, it exists in that spot. We want to take it beyond. One of the ways to take it beyond is to deal with your Yetzer Hara.